I wish I could say that this article in Harper’s Bazaar (written by Molly Jong-Fast, daughter of Erica Jong) about a mother in NYC who sued an ‘elite preschool’ for not accepting her younger son (I can only assume she already had a child at the school), and ‘hindering her daughter’s ivy league chances’ (seriously, not kidding!), but I am not. We all know the stories, from Tiger Moms to lawsuits, what is up? We can’t look away though, these stories, articles, books and episodes of Real Housewives are everywhere. In this particular article, Molly Jong-Fast writes that: ‘Having so many accomplished, intelligent, ambitious women living in such close proximity to one another was inevitably going to lead to competitiveness and shows of excess. I’ll never forget the day a member of a team of young nannies of three boys, all under the age of five, showed me their color-coded schedules. Each of the three had no fewer than two after-school activities per day. They played squash and basketball; took Mandarin; practiced chess; studied piano, robotics, and math; and had speech and occupational therapy (as a precautionary measure). The nanny rolled her eyes. “All these children lack empathy and compassion because those are the things you can’t buy,”
She writes that:
I don’t usually pay that much attention to e-mails my mother forwards me. But one jumped out recently: A family friend revealed that she was filing a lawsuit against her daughter’s Manhattan private school because it would not accept her younger son. That e-mail arrived just after the news broke that another woman was suing a $19,000-a- year Upper East Side preschool for failing to prepare her four-year-old for an IQ test required by private elementary schools for admission, thereby hurting her chances of getting into an Ivy League college. I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was. As an Upper East Side mother myself–of twin three-year-olds and a seven-year-old–I’ve encountered more than my share of obsessive parents and, on occasion, been guilty of being one.
When I had my first son in 2004, I was worried. One could say I was almost overprepared for the mania that is Manhattan mothering. I had a library of books about raising children in the city warning me of the übercompetitive mothers who would do anything to get their kids into the most exclusive nursery schools. I read the yummy-mummy posts on UrbanBaby.com. I knew about the “right” baby class (to ensure a spot at the “right” preschool) that one had to register for while still pregnant with the potential student. (I had been to the trunk show of frilly infant ensembles that is held at the Carlyle hotel.) I knew that the women of Manhattan had a very chic and very competitive and very neurotic thing going.
Perhaps I didn’t know just how neurotic it would get. I grew up with parents who were not particularly obsessed with the nuances of my mental and academic development. It was the ’80s and they were too busy reenacting the Meryl Streep–Dustin Hoffman divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer. Muggings were still a regular occurrence in New York. People were scared to live here. They fled in droves to safe, clean places like Westchester, Greenwich, and Long Island, where there were good public schools. But when the city became safer–and certainly by the time my twins were born three years ago–it was clear that things had changed forever.
No longer needing to worry about food, shelter, or purse snatchers, Manhattan’s elite has moved on to different concerns. The entire city is afflicted with a case of “affluenza”: widespread panic about there not being enough preschool spots, not enough Mandarin-speaking nannies, not enough David Netto–designed $1,600 cribs.
Having so many accomplished, intelligent, ambitious women living in such close proximity to one another was inevitably going to lead to competitiveness and shows of excess. I’ll never forget the day a member of a team of young nannies of three boys, all under the age of five, showed me their color-coded schedules. Each of the three had no fewer than two after-school activities per day. They played squash and basketball; took Mandarin; practiced chess; studied piano, robotics, and math; and had speech and occupational therapy (as a precautionary measure). The nanny rolled her eyes. “All these children lack empathy and compassion because those are the things you can’t buy,” she said. ä
There is also a cottage industry that has sprung up around the intelligence test known as the ERB–the very exam that sparked the lawsuit. One of the many tutoring companies parents rely on is called Aristotle Circle and charges up to $450 an hour for the privilege of helping your preschooler ace the test. I’m not sure that’s what Aristotle had in mind when he wrote on causality, optics, and metaphysics 2,300 years ago.
And what about the mother who threw a Wizard of Oz–themed birthday party for her twin girls, said to feature dwarves dressed as Munchkins, monkeys, and a candy store? They also had a My Little Pony party where both the live ponies and the bales of hay were dyed pink. (All this sets the bar impossibly high for their weddings.)
While stories like these abound, and they provide fodder for motherly gossip after morning drop-offs, we can’t pretend that there isn’t a trickle-down effect. One mother felt so guilty about being absent the week before her son’s birthday (she was brokering a deal in Asia) that she had each of the cupcakes at his party personalized with a photo of every child in his class. Other moms find themselves tormenting Magic Al (the preferred birthday magician of the Bugaboo-stroller set) to make sure that every element of his routine is choreographed to the hilt or obsessing over intricate handmade valentines for their not-yet-dexterous toddlers to exchange with their friends. And what about the panicked–but very preppy–mother who decided to dress her half-Indian daughter in a sari in hopes of getting her into a Waspy girls’ school on the diversity ticket?
Much of this overly enthusiastic “helicopter parenting” is caused by parental guilt, misplaced social frustrations, and the boredom that is a result of the monotony of parenting young children. So maybe it is the mothers and not the schools that fuel the pressure cooker. There are countless parents who complain about the unfairness of the interview process, about the administrator’s inability to see their child’s genius. But the problem is that a spot at a $37,000-a-year private school is not a fundamental right.
So why do they act like it is?
Duh–winning! They’ve always won at everything, so why shouldn’t they win at parenting? Amy Chua (or, as we now know her, Tiger Mom) went to Harvard College and Harvard Law School. Now she teaches at Yale, the most prestigious law school in America. This is not a woman accustomed to losing. This is not a woman who takes no for an answer. This is also a woman for whom her daughters’ success is intricately linked to her own. What will she do if they end up enrolling at Arizona State?
I admit I have spent many a sleepless night obsessing over my kids, and I continually have to remind myself that there is enough to go around. There are many spots in many fine private schools, many nannies who speak Mandarin, many overpriced cribs. And that baby class that you have to sign up for when you’re still pregnant? Well, I took it, and it’s stupid. We know from our own observations that some children won’t get into fancy private schools, but they will still go on to have successful lives. Some children will not be good at violin. Some children will bomb the ERBs and later the SATs. Some children will end up in rehab at 19 (like yours truly, the product of an elite private school herself).
It is our job as parents to love our children, even if they fail to gratify our own social ambitions. Children are not acquisitions like racehorses or handbags, and relentlessly pushing one’s child to be an expression of one’s aspirations is, frankly, the easy option. Loving our children for who they are is the true measure of who we are as parents.
Molly Jong-Fast’s new novel, The Social Climber’s Handbook, is out now.